Byzantine and the Culture of Books

Topics: Byzantine Empire, Byzantine art, History of art Pages: 10 (3538 words) Published: July 21, 2013
On May 11, 330, Emperor Constantinople dedicated the city of Constantinople to “the Holy Trinity and to the Mother of God,” thus inaugurating the birth of the first Christian empire.[1] For the next eleven hundred and twenty-three years, and eighteen days, this mighty empire would ebb and flow, yet nonetheless hold fast to its Christian devotion until the very city that Emperor Constantinople had dedicated fell to the Ottoman Turks on May 29, 1453.[2] For one to fully comprehend Byzantine history, the empire’s Christian milieu should be kept in mind - one’s corporal being was insignificant in light of the Christian church’s promise of “a better world to come and provided a mystic escape from the world here and now.”[3] Consequently, the empire clung to religious orthodoxy in hopes of attaining ever-lasting fulfillment in the afterlife, “theological doctrine were infinitely more important than grand questions of secular policy,” for while the latter might only have relevance in earthly matters, the former was believed to directly impact the rest of one’s eternity.[4] As religion, and the practice thereof, was an affair of the state, it may be no wonder then that the Byzantine Empire occasionally felt it their responsibility to censor something as seemingly benign as art.[5]

Yet art was anything but benign to some. Looking to religious scripture, and particularly to the Second Commandment of the Law of Moses as laid out in Exodus and Deuteronomy, one might find reason for such concern amongst church officials. Deuteronomy 5:7-8 of the Septuagint reads: οὐκ ἔσονταί σοι θεοὶ ἕτεροι πρὸ προσώπου μου. οὐ ποιήσεις σεαυτῷ εἴδωλον οὐδὲ παντὸς ὁμοίωμα, ὅσα ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ ἄνω καὶ ὅσα ἐν τῇ γῇ κάτω καὶ ὅσα ἐν τοῖς ὕδασιν ὑποκάτω τῆς γῆς - roughly translating to “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make a graven image (idol) for you, any likeness of anything in the heavens above and in the earth beneath and in the waters from under the earth.” Such a commandment would come to inspire two periods of intense scrutinization of art within the Byzantine Empire, “from 730 to 787 and then again from 815 to 843,” moments in which the icons that had otherwise long been venerated, were destroyed by the very people who had once so ardently adored them.[6]

As historians and other scholars of the 20th and 21st centuries look back to the Byzantine, one might wonder how recent scholars have interpreted or understood these two instances of Iconoclasm. What might be the impact of Iconoclasm had upon the written word, that is, do scholars perceive any relationship with Iconoclasm and an emphasis on texts, literacy, and so forth? Does Byzantine book culture reflect a relationship between literacy of text versus visual literacy? Did Byzantine icons compete with interest in the written word? How does the book culture of late antiquity shift through the Byzantine? What does reading and ‘writing’ mean, in particular, with regard to Christianity?

The discussion of Byzantine Iconoclasm and book culture appear to take on three distinctive approaches. Art historians have a particular interest in Iconoclasm’s obvious impact upon the production of Byzantine art and make up a large body of the text available on the subject. The work of classical historians provide much insight into both Iconoclasm and literacy, often investigating the social and political causes and ramifications of art censorship as well as into Byzantine literary achievements. There exists a smaller niche of writing on the Byzantine that directly addresses Byzantine literacy and book culture.

Art’s status within society can alter drastically between one culture and another, writes Byzantine art historian Andre Graber in his book released in 1953, The Great Centuries of Painting: Byzantine Painting, and in the Byzantium, “art was given a leading place; indeed it was in this field, more than in any other, that the Byzantine contribution to world culture found its fullest...
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